Small gatherings, big changes

'Where Two or Three Are Gathered' aims to help small congregations
April 20, 2008

Reaching new people through newstyle worship services or gatherings was the topic when more than 70 people from 26 small congregations across the Episcopal Church gathered in New Orleans recently.


The participants were part of "Where Two or Three Are Gathered," a pilot project offered by the Episcopal Church Center in New York in collaboration with Charles Arn, a church-growth consultant.

The program's premise resides partly in two findings of the 2005 Faith Communities Today report. The survey found that more than a third of both small congregations offering multiple worship services and those offering innovative and diverse worship services were growing.

More than 100 congregations applied to join the pilot, which offers 18 months of support along with the January training program. Those selected all have average Sunday attendances of 70 or fewer.

Participating congregations were seeking to nourish the unmet spiritual needs of people in their wider communities.

Participants from each congregation prepared for six months before the New Orleans conference. The groups explored and redefined their congregation's purpose, studied their community demographics (both composition and need) and discerned their gifts. They next moved towards defining a "target group" around which to create a new service.

Target groups might include those living with autism and their families, weekend or seasonal visitors to a resort community, post-modern/emerging communities or families with pre-school children.

Most congregations plan to launch a new service between Easter and the fall.

One group of conference participants arrived early to help the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort through Camp Coast Care in Mississippi. Inspired by the story of their experience and Camp Coast Care's work, participants donated nearly $1,000 to the effort during a collection taken during the conference.

During the conference, the Rev. Charles Fulton, director of congregational development for the Episcopal Church, presented an examination of cultural change. The Rev. Eric Elnes helped participants explore the possibilities of a multisensory worship in addition to a traditional service.

The Rev. Rob Norris-Weber discussed the model of a traditional church starting a new satellite service with a different style in a different locale. He used the example of Spirit Garage, part of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis that he leads in a theater. Terry Parsons, stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church, discussed creating mission-driven budgets. Arn discussed the nuts and bolts of starting a new service or gathering.

During his presentation, Elnes, the senior pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ in Scottsdale, Arizona, asked a volunteer to walk across the room with a glass of water. He had her report on her experience, and she said it was no big deal.

He then had her repeat the exercise while imagining that she was walking a tightrope and that the fate of everyone in the room depended on her not spilling a drop. She was focused and intentional, and each step mattered.

He drew a comparison to small congregations and worship. It is imperative, he said, that leaders of small congregations make sure that all they do in worship matters.

Elnes' congregation offers traditional Sunday worship as well as The Studio, a multisensory, high-technology worship experience, supported by professional jazz musicians.

Sample liturgies
Participants were challenged to design and lead short worship segments that they might include in their new worship services. The group from St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Honolulu brought a ukulele and led participants in traditional songs in English and Hawaiian.

The group from Church of the Ascension in Buffalo, New York, brought "Share Your Story" cards from the Diocese of Olympia. Participants shared part of their spiritual stories with other participants whom they had not yet met.

Congregants of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hope, New Jersey, brought a sample children's Eucharist. Participants from St. John's in Union City, New Jersey, and Christ Episcopal Church, Dublin, Georgia, photographed the event and combined the pictures for a slide show during the closing prayers.

Participants also had to go out into New Orleans on the Friday night of the conference and ask people attending Mardi Gras parades why more people don't attend church. Most replied that they had other commitments on Sunday morning, prompting some participants to consider offering services at nontraditional times.

"It's inspiring to hear how other congregations are finding new life and resonating with the culture -- living the message -- and hearing how it was developed," one participant said at the end of the conference.


Many resources are available to assist small congregations interested in creating alternative worship gatherings to reach those whom Elnes called the "spiritually homeless." (See the Resource list and "Discernment Q & A" below).

  • How to Start a New Service: Your Church CAN Reach New People by Charles Arn (Baker Books, Grand Rapids)
  • Where Two or Three are Gathered: a free electronic planning resource for the congregation considering starting a new-style service or gathering. Contact the Rev. Suzanne Watson at [email protected].
  • For information on mission-driven budgets, contact Terry Parsons at [email protected].
  • Spirit Garage
  • The Studio

Discernment Q & A
Questions help congregations decide if they're ready for new-style worship

Church-growth consultant Charles Arn, in his book How to Start a New Service: Your Church CAN Reach New People, offers a list of
questions to help congregations discern whether to begin a new church service. By "new," he means a service differing in style from the congregation's current offerings. The new-style service would aim to reach out to new people to continue Christ's mission
to make disciples.

Arn proposes asking these questions (applicable across denominational lines) to help in discernment:

1. Is your congregation's highest priority being "like a family"?
2. Is your congregation's highest priority preserving "correct" doctrine and "correct" interpretation of Scripture?
3. Has your congregation split from a more liberal one in the past 50 to 75 years?
4. Is your congregation's highest priority survival (i.e., avoiding death rather than pursuing life)?
5. Does your congregation seem too small to add another service?
6. Is your congregation's attendance declining?
7. Is your congregation's sanctuary less than filled on Sundays?
8. Does your congregation lack the personnel to add a new service?
9. Does your theology or liturgical beliefs not allow for a different style?
10. Is your church in a bad location?

Did you answer "yes" to question number 1, 2, 3 or 4? If so, starting a new service will be more difficult for your congregation at this time. Answering "yes" to these questions is a legitimate reason not to go forward.

About 50 percent of congregations (across denominations) fall into this category. Even under these difficult circumstances, however, starting a new-style service or gathering can be an effective means of evangelism and strengthening congregational vitality.

If the idea of the Episcopal Church's pilot project still interests you and you are ready to take on an extra challenge, the Office of Congregational Development can support you, honors your initiative and welcomes an application from your congregation.

Did you answer "yes" to question number 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10? Guess what? These are excuses for not starting a new service, but they are not reasons. Despite the excuses, your congregation is in a good position to consider launching a new-style service, and the Office of Congregational Development is here to assist as your congregation further discerns the possibilities.

-- The Rev. Suzanne Watson is director of the Episcopal Church's new Center for Congregational Life and Evangelism. She is based at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

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